More and more women are coming forward in the public eye to tell their stories of sexual assault and harassment. There seems to be a loud echoing question: Why don't women report the incident when it happens?
Lets start with part one- many women seek help immediately following an assault. For these women this means going directly to a third party, hospital or police department after the event. At hospitals a physical exam is performed and evidence is gathered into what is known commonly as a rape-kit. After the kit is gathered, the survivor has an opportunity to report. Some people choose to make an official report immediately, some do not. Sadly the statistics are currently under 10% for reported rapes leading to subsequent convictions. Out of every 1000 reported rapes 996 perpetrators continue on as if nothing happened.
The reasons not to report can feel like they outweigh the benefits. Here are just a few reasons why and a look into what someone who has gone through a sexual assault may be experiencing.
There has just been a trauma
People react to trauma in many different ways and there are usually stages to recovery just like grief. The pain, physical and emotional, can be totally overwhelming. Sometimes just saying it out loud can solidify that it really happened.
Our lovely brains have oodles of defense mechanisms, one of the strongest and most effective being denial. When our brain feels as though the pain may be too much to handle it goes into self-preservation mode. For many of us, after experiencing a trauma that means you (consciously or subconsciously) shove it down and try to forget so you can make it through the day, so you can go to work, so you can be a mom. It's a survival mechanism that is often out of our control and rarely a conscious decision.
Survivors of sexual abuse often blame themselves
Because of the way our brains work when we are in a situation that is life threatening or perceived as life threatening we go into a fight/flight/freeze response, a natural and amazing mechanism which helps to keep us alive. Yes some women fight, some women try to flee, some are never given the opportunity by their bodies and remain frozen as they experience one of the worst events a person can go through. Our brains switch off the rational logical problem-solving areas of thought and go into survival mode. Our brains and bodies fall in line. We act instinctively on what is most likely to keep us alive in these situations. The guilt and shame that comes with not being able to fight hard enough or not even being able to move is painful and paralyzing.
During traumatic events our brains attempt to make it our fault or something we could have prevented to give us a sense of control in a situation where we felt scared and totally out of control.
There are usually threats involved
All threats, real or perceived, to a survivor's life or the lives of loved ones factor in. Threats can be direct threats to our mortality or they can be centered around the status of the perpetrator. When the assailant is an authority figure, a successful adult, a person with greater economic or social standing or a respected member of the community there is the very real threat that no one will believe the survivor.
When we fear for our safety during an assault, molestation or rape, beliefs about ourselves and our world form. These are the beliefs we carry with us forever, whether it happened two years ago or twenty years ago.
Friends and Family
As if the combination of guilt and shame from the event isn't enough, the unfortunate reality is that often times perpetrators are related or have a relationship with survivors which makes reporting complicated. Many women feel torn about what the right thing to do is. They think about not just themselves, but also their families and friends who may be involved. Sometimes the person who perpetrated the crime is a boyfriend, a spouse or a friend. As humans, most of us require a sense of community or social connection to feel safe and whole- when outing your rapist looks like potentially being excommunicated by your family, your church, etc., that threat can feel devastating and life crushing. If we all thought and acted purely on logic we wouldn't be human. Emotions, empathy, defense mechanisms, manipulation and sense of safety all play roles in what happens after an assault.
Survivors are often ridiculed, blamed and called liars
Glancing through our Facebook or Twitter feed, there's no denying that people are speculative when it comes to survivors of rape or abuse coming forward. Questions about what they were wearing, if they had a drink, if they snuck out, or if they flirted that night all take the blame away from the person who committed the crime and put the blame onto the victim of the crime.
It's a natural response at times to be skeptical of people who come forward if the person being accused is someone you know or someone you relate to. Our initial response doesn't have to remain our stance. As a society we need to evaluate our responses and work to be open, compassionate and understanding. Learn more about the incidence of sexual assault and how you can be a part of a support system for the people you know who live and struggle with this painful memory every day.
Sometimes women are simply not ready
Processing an event of this kind can take a long time. There are all kinds of mental walls to break down, self-esteem to build up and support systems to become a part of before many women can get to the point of being ready to confront or out their abuser. No one is owed a timeline or a due date when it comes to processing a traumatic event. No one is obligated to report. This is their story to tell and they can tell it when they are ready. Be there to support them when they are.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted please call 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area. Visit Rainn.org today to learn more about what you can do to prevent sexual assault, support a friend or loved one going through this and to gather more information about procedures and incidence.
i. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Crime Victimization Survey, 2010-2014 (2015);
ii. Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Incident-Based Reporting System, 2012-2014 (2015);
iii. Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Incident-Based Reporting System, 2012-2014 (2015);
iv. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Felony Defendants in Large Urban Counties, 2009 (2013).
(This statistic combines information from several federal government reports. Because it combines data from studies with different methodologies, it is an approximation, not a scientific estimate. Please see the original sources for more detailed information. These statistics are updated annually and as new information is published.)